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By Hamid Elyassi


The Montréal Review, September 2013


In February 2011, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt resigned after the armed forces sided with several thousand protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square demanding his removal. With the probable exception of those who still supported Mubarak, replacing him with a military government was acclaimed as a democratic revolution. On July 3rd 2013, as thousands of Egyptians were voicing discontent with President Mohammad Morsi’s rule, the Egyptian military deposed him and with greater tact and refinement, put a civilian transitional government in his place. The unseating of Mohammad Morsi, however, proved an acrimonious affair with his supporters contesting the army’s claim that it had, again, acted in response to the expressed wishes of the Egyptian people. Yet, the perseverance, even obstinacy with which Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood continued to defy the military rule was not just the result of decades of political activism, but equally importantly, their belief that their president, unlike his predecessor, had been elected in a democratic election and therefor, continued to be their legitimate ruler.

Naturally, those who had gathered in Tahrir Square calling for Morsi’s resignation disagreed. The anti-Morsi demonstrators who, regardless of their numerical strength, had no hope of unseating a president defended by a well-trained army of veteran activists, celebrated what they saw as a timely military intervention before the armed forces, alongside other institutions of the state, were themselves rendered impotent by an ideologically motivated autocrat in the making.

These different narratives were reflected in the epithets chosen to describe the action of the army. To anti-Morsi groups, the general’s political intervention was a necessary action to overhaul a system about to ground to a halt, or at worst, a successful rebellion by a disaffected army despairing of an ineffectual, potentially authoritarian ruler. Mr Morsi’s supporters, on the other hand, were adamant that removal of an elected president had all the marks of a military coup d’état staged by a group of generals to advance their personal or organisational interests.

 Of course, it is natural for a controversial event of this kind to assume different descriptions because of the diversity of political tendencies and theoretical persuasions involved. And except for the implications for the continuation of American aid and the publicity duel between the opposing sides to the dispute, the controversy would have had little practical significance. Yet, the change of government in Egypt and the manner it was carried out raised far more important issues than a question of semantics.

Politics of change

To the youth leaders who launched the mass movement to topple Mr Morsi and their liberal and secular supporters, what happened on July 3rd was the saving of a revolution for democracy which was about to be usurped by inherently despotic elements. Some went so far as describing the intervention by the army as a “revolution” against an emerging dictatorship, made potentially more tenacious by self-righteous religious fervour. How was one to appraise such claims? 

At the dawn of the Arab Spring, I compared the democratic promise of the uprising with the disappointing outcome of the “Third World” independence movements a few decades before which began with hopes of democratic development and mostly ended in dictatorship. It was pointed out that the saving grace of this Spring was the participation of the Arab youths keen to safeguard their newly gained freedom. The democratic fruits of the Arab Spring, it was argued, depended on the ability of the youths to apply their enthusiasm, aptitude for mass mobilisation and technological know-how to protect their revolution and learn how to exercise their democratic rights responsibly. (1)

In the evening of July 3rd, when the head of the Egyptian army appeared on television screens, flanked by youth leaders next to liberal politicians and religious dignitaries, to announce the removal of the president, it was natural to ask: Is this the responsible exercise of democratic rights by the young? Or is it a disingenuous façade to hide the real aims of men in uniform who, like the Praetorian guards, were in the habit of selling the Imperial Throne to the highest bidder? After all, this was the second time in almost two years that the generals were changing their rulers, ostensibly in response to demand by a disgruntled citizenry.

To go by the size of anti-Morsi protest in Tahrir Square, he had indeed managed to alienate a large number of citizens, some of whom had certainly voted for an Islamist parliament and, with less enthusiasm, an Islamist president. Yet, within a year of his rule, many felt frustrated by Morsi’s failure to meet the basic expectations of the masses. To make matters worse, there was the underlying suspicion that the president, perhaps goaded by his ideological mentors, was gradually extending his powers and clearing the way for Islamist forces to infiltrate and take over all major institutions of the state. In the politically charged atmosphere of a post-revolutionary society, the prospect of an inefficient government gaining a permanent foothold was bound to cause apprehension and a sense of betrayal. The gathering of thousands of protestors in Tahrir Square at the end of June was a clear signal for a politically mature leader to address these grievances and restore confidence in his rule. This was not to be.

Instead, the protestors were rebuffed by a defiant president who, flaunting his electoral credentials, insisted that he would not bow to pressure to change course or resign. Meanwhile, his supporters gathered a few miles away to cry foul and stage a shouting match. They argued that no matter what had gone wrong or right during Morsi’s presidency, he had to be tolerated until the ballot boxes were out for the next elections. To them, this was the “democracy” which Egyptians had chosen when they ousted Hosni Mubarak. And if anyone thought they had made a wrong choice, it was too late to change their mind. Neither the president nor his vocal supporters seemed mindful of the fact that democracy is simply the means to good governance; it is not an article of faith ordained by the power from on high to be obeyed regardless of how it is used or abused.

The Islamists’ argument seemed even less convincing because Mr Morsi had come to power in the second round of a closely fought election and was expected to lead a post-revolutionary nation in search of reconciliation and democratic identity. He had been entrusted with the task of laying the foundation of democratic institutions and coaching his people in the basic rules of democratic behaviour. What was not expected of him was to rely on a weak mandate to pursue what seemed a comprehensive, partisan programme with long term implications.

Whatever their intention, the generals who overthrew President Morsi polarised public opinion in Egypt, in the region and beyond. When in February 2011, the then defence minister and supreme commander of the Egyptian armed forces replaced Hosni Mubarak, his action was acclaimed by, among others, the Islamist forces, as a legitimate, revolutionary response to the demands of the Egyptian people. Two and a half years on, the same move generated different reactions.

Unlike the rather muted response of Hosni Mubarak’s supporters to his forced resignation, deposition of Mohammad Morsi was followed by the defiant stance of his Islamist supporters who exhibited an exceptional, even alarming power of mobilising and directing resistance to the new rulers. After a well-orchestrated sit-in which was only dispersed by use of brutal force and  reportedly, extensive bloodshed, the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies still managed to bring out large crowds of people who showed great, some might say fanatical courage in defending their cause. To them, Morsi had been elected in a fair and, by and large, free election and had governed according to a constitutional which, notwithstanding its possible defects, was in force at the time of his removal. As such, disaffection towards, let alone depriving him of the means to rule was a treasonable act that jeopardised Egypt’s newly gained liberty.

Legal or illegal?

It is not possible to evaluate the full political outcome of the events of July 3rd before the forces it has set in motion settle to a final conclusion. But there are legal and ethical questions concerning the removal of President Morsi which can be addressed regardless of such political implications.

Clearly, the legality or otherwise of an action concerning the institution of government proceeds from the legal basis on which that government operates, and more specifically, the constitutional law or convention providing itsmodus operandi. In the case of Egypt, the resignation of Hosni Mubarak led to the suspension of his constitution and its replacement by a “Fundamental Law.” This Law, declared by military decree, was to serve as a provisional constitution during the army’s rule. It was under this Law that the parliamentary and presidential elections were held and brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power.

Under Mr Morsi, a draft constitution was drawn up and approved in a referendum with a minimal turnout. The membership of the Constituent Assembly, dominated by Islamists, and certain parts of the document became the bone of legal and political contention and even intermittent demonstrations which culminated in the mass protest at the end of June 2013. According to some liberal and secular forces, the president and his supporters had devised a constitutional plot to impose a religious regime on Egypt in contravention of the democratic aspirations of the people. The Islamists’ apologists rejected the claim, holding that since the majority of Egyptians were Muslim, governing under Islamic laws was the epitome of democracy.

This was an unsound and provocative argument. Although democratic governance emanates from the expressed will of the majority, it requires the fulfilment of several essential preconditions, among them political, religious and ideological pluralism and protection of the rights of the minorities. In fact, one can point to certain totalitarian regimes in recent past that came to power through free election but, claiming to represent the unspoken will of the class, racial or religious “majority” wiped out all vestiges of democracy. Besides, democracy is meaningless without the central concept of the separation of church and state. Even though Mr Morsi’s constitution might not be described as the proverbial road-map to theocratic tyranny, it was certainly not designed to achieve broad political and ideological consensus.

Of course, absence of a consensual constitutional framework does not necessarily imply lack of political legitimacy of the government based on it; however, a government working in such a framework is expected to seek the widest possible accord in the choice and implementation of its policies It is expected to give priority to the amendment of the constitution and meanwhile, avoid controversial issues by confining its actions to the minimum requisites of effective governance. In terms of Morse’s administration, these constraints required concentrating on clearing the economic and social debris left by months of chaos, and trying to reconciling and engage diverse political and social forces in building a democratic society. The tragedy of Mohammad Morse’s short rule was that he acted as a partisan ruler at a time when Egyptians needed the unifying vision of a Ghandi, a Nehru or a Mandela. Having assumed office with a weak mandate and standing on rather shaky legal grounds, Morsi seemed intent on remoulding the state according to the eighty-year old dream of his Brotherhood.

Ethical Dilemma

The legality of the action of the armed forces in deposing President Morsi may be suspect, but is there an ethical justification for it? Before moving to unseat the president, the army issued an ultimatum asking him to respond to “people’s” demands to change his approach or resign. To go by the media reports, many of the protestors were frustrated with the inability of the government to provide even the basic services. But there were also those who, rightly or wrongly, accused the president and his backers of derailing the democratic course of the revolution in pursuit of their Islamist agenda. In the chaotic aftermath of Morsi’s overthrow, the distinction between these two real or perceived rationales for the army’s insurgence became blurred. Yet, the distinction becomes critical in inquiring into the ethical grounds of that action.

Such an inquiry must, of necessity, preclude the possibility that the army exploited public discontent as a pretext to act in pursuit of its own political and economic gains, otherwise any discussion of the ethics of the move would become redundant. The arbitrary, self-seeking action of any person or institution in undermining the authority, let alone overthrowing a freely elected government, no matter how incompetent, is a treasonable act and as such, illegal, politically dangerous and morally reprehensible.

Yet, even if the military’s action came in response to public discontent, still its ethical status depends on the assumptions made about the causes of that discontent. Morsi’s opponents pointed to two distinct reasons for people’s grievances. For some, the president and his Islamist colleagues, who had a brilliant record of organising small-scale, charitable activities, had assumed power on false pretences and were in fact incapable of running the affairs of the state. They left people economically and socially worse off than during the allegedly “corrupt” regime of Mubarak. To them, Morsi had failed to improve the economy and was responsible for, or at least indifferent to such grave social ills as the spread of sectarian violence. He had to go.

Deciding the verity of these complaints and judging the reasons for Morsi’s failure to remedy them are not under discussion here. But even if the protestors’ complaint were valid, would this warrant the forcible removal of the president? The answer is an emphatic No.  True, under a democratic ruler, the citizens, whether they have voted for him or not, have the right to voice their dissatisfaction and ask him to change his policy or step down. And a responsible and responsive ruler is expected to try to convince the protesters that he is doing his best, promise to amend his ways or leave office. What is not ethically warranted is the forced removal of a democratically elected ruler by resorting to extra-political instruments, in particular the military because his actions have failed to meet expectations. In this case, other ways of dealing for the failing ruler must be found.

The other source of objection to Morsi’s government was that he and his well-organised power base, the Muslim Brotherhood, were conspiring to use their elected position in parliament and presidency to establish a religious regime in contravention of the democratic objectives of the Egyptian revolution. The new regime would, then, divest the people of their sovereign rights and transfer legitimate authority and legislative licence to a Divine source, and through Him, to religious rulers as the “interpreters” of His Will. Thus, Mr Morsi and his organisation were accused of plotting to use their democratically gained power to destroy Egyptian democracy.

The establishment of an “Islamic” regime in Egypt would also entail disastrous material consequences for the country, especially in view of the evident incompetence of the Islamists in running the affairs of the state. Sooner or later, they would feel obliged to find some way of distracting public opinion from their incompetence, and to go by existing patterns, the most convenient ploy would be to adopt a bellicose foreign policy to put the nation in a state of constant vigil. For Egypt, this would mean banishment to the margin of regional politics, there to grapple with a downward spiralling economy.  Thus, if President Morsi were really after destroying Egypt’s dream of democracy, then he was in blatant infringement of the Egyptians’ faith in a democratic and better future. And the people had the right to defend their future by resorting to any means at hand, including use of force to sack the president. In Egypt, the army, as the institution endowed with independent power, took upon itself to act on behalf of the people and as such, its action was beyond ethical reproach.

It is not difficult to see the premises behind this conclusion. Assuming power in free elections amounts to a mutual contract between the elected government, obliged to act upon its mandated programme to the best of its ability, and the people, committed to give their government the opportunity to do so. Like any other contract, deliberate breach of undertaking by either party releases the other from the obligation to honour its own. Under the unspoken terms of the election contract, a democratically elected president conspiring to undermine democracy is in serious breach of contract, has forfeited his right to govern and must go, or be removed if necessary. Yet, even then, it is preferable for the deposition to be effected by an authorised institution, for instance the judiciary or parliament, instead of the armed forces which risk turning the military into the supreme political arbiter. And a depoliticised military, like separation of church and state, is a main prerequisite of democratic government. In fact, this why a parliamentary system of government, allowing easier institutional change of government, may be better suited to a country in early stages of democratic progress than a fixed term presidential regime. And any functional constitution must provide for emergency responses to executive incompetence.

Shakespearean Tragedy

On the whole, regardless of the political implications of the ousting of Mohammad Morsi, the legal and ethical justification of the action of the Egyptian army depends on the assumptions made about the inner thoughts and motives of the main players and as such, is open to speculation. And not for the first time in history.

Some two thousand years ago, a greater ruler fell in a murderous mutiny by old friends who suspected him of conspiracy to betray public trust. Yet, the allegation is still a matter of conjecture. Similarly for Mohammad Morsi, only he and those privy to his inner thoughts know if his intentions were misconstrued. Or, as the English Bard had Brutus say, those who deposed Mr Morsi can tell Egyptians: “Had you rather Caesar were living and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?” (2)

The fall of Caesar led to a civil war and the end of the Roman republic. Let us hope that the recent event in Egypt is but a passing peril of growing up into a mature democracy and it will not stall the progress of this ancient land.


  1.  http://www.themontrealreview.com/2009/Arab-Spring-Islam-and-Democracy.php
  2. William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, III.2


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